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It is hard to think of a 253-page book as the CliffsNotes version of anything. But when one considers that the most recent English translation of the 11th century text, The Tale of Genji, runs to 1300 pages, Melissa McCormick’s new illustrated supplement, The Tale of Genji: A Visual Companion (2018, Princeton University Press), is the soul of brevity.
That’s because this book focuses narrowly on 108 paintings and calligraphy leaves created in 1510, each of which accompanies one of 54 chapters in the tale (the original manuscript of which is lost to history). This, The Tale of Genji Album (1510) by Tosa Mitsunobu, is part of the Harvard Art Museum’s collection — to which McCormick, Professor of Japanese Art and Culture at the university, has a great deal of access.
“The ability to teach with the Genji Album and to examine it up close on multiple occasions has enriched this project beyond measure,” McCormick writes in the introduction to A Visual Companion. Each spread in the main body of the text presents an illustration and accompanying waka — a poem in 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure, 795 of which are incorporated into The Tale of Genji. They are translated into kanji, phonetic Japanese, and English. As each illustration showcases only a moment of each chapter, the following two pages contain a synopsis of the chapter’s action and characters, as well as analysis of nuances in the manuscript, the image, and the poem that might be lost on a contemporary audience.
The narrative centers primarily on the titular character, though “Genji” is a surname designated for princes removed from the line of succession: in this case, the son of the Emperor’s prized consort, in whom the ruler takes a special interest despite his illegitimacy. The story was written by a noblewoman and lady-in-waiting named Murasaki Shikibu and is widely considered to be the first novel — paving the way for centuries of literary study and analysis, imitation, and numerous illustrative exercises.
Following his introduction in the first chapter, “The Lady of the Paulownia-Courtyard Chambers,” which finds this “radiant prince” (hikaru kimi) in the poignant ceremonial transition into manhood at the age of 12, the chapter two illustration shows his rape of a woman, Utsusemi, the young stepmother of the Governor and noblewoman of lower rank (which apparently makes her fair game for Genji’s unwanted advances). The waka accompanying the illustration details the morning after their encounter, with the woman “still sighing in the dark/of my misery.” It also features one of Murasaki’s signature perspective shifts: throughout the rambling, operatic tale, many people speak in first-person, including a host of female characters.
Naturally, this rape scene initiates a romance between Utsusemi and Genji — who is engaged to Lady Aoi. It is merely the kickoff of our protagonist’s many sexual adventures, which have gone on to be memorialized in an entire subculture of erotic Genji illustrations. The romanticization of rape, as well as a multitude of aspects of the characters’ dress, bearing, and even their location within the paintings are unpacked in exacting detail by McCormick, with each explanatory spread featuring detail views that highlight particularly arresting aspects of the paintings. A Visual Companion serves equally well as a thorough introduction to a work of great literary and art-historical importance, and a deep dive into the book’s cultural and narrative subtleties for those who are already students of The Tale of Genji.
Ultimately, my main quibble with the book — aside from heroicizing a narrator who uses women in a manner culturally acceptable for his time, but not for mine — is that the illustrations are so small. The pages that reproduce the Genji Album — for the first time ever in its entirety — show each image at 6.5 by 4.5 inches on 10- by 7-inch pages. The detail views on the following pages demonstrate that the work could have been printed in larger size without losing fidelity; it is surprising that this visual companion would not have dedicated as much space as possible to the presentation of the visual aspects. I found myself frequently squinting at pages and pulling the book closer to extract more from the images. That said, it is still surely the closest many of us will come to getting a look at the Genji Album, and McCormick’s elucidation of the sprawling, dramatic, and beautiful Tale of Genji makes this book an educational experience for those of us without access to a Harvard survey course on the subject. The is the most elegant and consummate experience one could demand from CliffsNotes.